Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Joan Eardley and Catterline

An essential component of my recent Scottish holiday was visiting the little coastal community of Catterline. This where the Glasgow-based artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963) acquired an old cottage on the clifftop, and from there painted the village houses and the turbulent sea below from many viewpoints, over and over again. Many of the pictures illustrating this post are photographed from a book on Joan Eardley published in 2007 by the National Galleries of Scotland (ISBN 978 1 906270 04 9), which I bought in February 2011 at The Pallant Gallery in Chichester. But my interest in her, the subjects she chose to paint, and and her way of painting, dates from August 2010, when I saw a BBC4 programme presented by the artist Anna King. So some of the illustrative shots were taken from the TV screen.

You might say that this post has been five years in the making. I knew I would write it one day. But a personal visit to Catterline was needed first.

Joan Eardley's painting style was impressionistic, strict photographic accuracy being eschewed for a faithful rendition of colour, movement and mood. She became well known for her capture of passing social scenes that have long since vanished - such as the poverty and squalor of tenement life in Glasgow, especially as revealed through the children who lived and played there. Here are some of those children.

'Lost innocence in a tough environment' sums it up for me. The style is unmistakable. And it's remarkable how, despite the simplicity of line, and the roughness of the brush-strokes, the personalities of these children shine through. You can hear their voices, and sense their thoughts. She must have spent a long time winning their confidence.

But it wasn't only documentary painting in the slums. She had a feel for landscape and seascape too. Catterline was a long way from Glasgow, but having discovered it she struggled there, with all her painting paraphernalia, from the station at Stonehaven a few miles off. Catterline fifty years ago was a different place from how it is now. Then it was still a traditional fishing village. Nets dried on the shore. The cliff-top fields were as they had been for centuries past, the hay ochre-yellow in the sunshine.

From the sea, or as close to the sea as she could get, or indeed from from any part of the undercliff, Catterline had a distinctive appearance - a long string of old cottages, silhouetted against a restless sky. She painted these in all weathers, especially liking the winter and its sky-effects. Her own cottage (which was gradually converted from a leaky shell into a basic but habitable seasonal residence) had a little garden right on the cliff edge (as seen in the aerial shot below), and from this - usually in a stiff breeze no matter what the time of year - she was fond of painting sideways views of the other cottages, all in a line.

The sea itself could not be ignored. It was ever-changing, hard to define, hard to paint, relentless. She faced it in all weathers.

Sometimes it was gentle. She could paint all its moods from her cottage, or from a position close by. There was no need to wander far along the cliff-top or shore. For the painter, Catterline had remarkable diversity. It even had a lighthouse.

She barely lived to forty-two. Cancer got her - breast cancer first, then her brain. She succumbed quickly.

She did not wish to be drugged to oblivion on morphine. Having seen my Mum on morphine, I can perfectly understand why, although the pain must have been almost unbearable. She died in a country hospital near Glasgow, and not at Catterline, although her ashes were scattered on the beach there.

Such is a bare outline of her life and work. I was determined to make a pilgrimage to Catterline and try to see for myself what it was about the place that had inspired her. And, though realising from the start that it was impossible to achieve, to record in my own photographs the spirit of the place as she might have felt it. Perhaps even to take some shots that echoed her painting style, although how one could do that with a still photograph - even if one worked on it afterwards - wasn't quite clear.

Everything that I intended to do looked feasible on arrival. There was the bay, the shore, the pier, the cliffs, those cottages on the skyline.

I went down onto the beach, and along it. It was composed mostly of unusually-coloured and marked pebbles, rather awkward to walk on. And another sort, greenish, that reminded me of serpentine. I carried three of these pebbles back to Fiona, and here they are at home:

The round ones were sometimes embedded in another kind of rock, like currants in a cake, and here and there the action of the waves had prized them out, leaving a rounded hole that could trip you up if you weren't careful where you placed your feet. I examined the pier, then looked around the shore. That big rock obviously needed a closer look. Beyond it, on its seaward side, was a lower turfed area that jutted out into the bay and received the full force of the wind and the waves. Despite this exposure, it was the natural place to set up an easel, whether you wanted to capture the sea or the landward view.

It looks serene enough in my shots, but the waves were in fact pounding that turf-and-rock platform hard, and spray was slowly soaking me.

I returned to the calm of the inner shore. There was a small cottage there - not Joan Eardley's, which could just be seen on the cliff-top above. This one was brightly-painted but locked up, its use mysterious.

But all the time one's eyes were drawn to that line of cottages above. I could see why painting them might become an obsession.

So. What did I achieve later in my caravan, working on some of the shots taken, to put some 'Joan Eardley style' into them? Did I succeed? Or did I merely manage to parody or insult her work? Here anyway are the best of my own:

Very Lucy Melford, perhaps! But nothing at all like Joan Eardley.


  1. That there rock be conglomerate and all the pretty round stones in it come from the breaking up of all kinds of rock by the movement of countless miles of the highland boundary fault which reaches the coast at Stonehaven. I like the red jasper ones myself...

  2. Ah, the word 'conglomerate' was on my lips as I wrote this post, but I didn't want to seem like a pretend-geologist!

    Red jasper will feature in a post to come, about the recumbent stone circles I visited.


  3. I'm deeply envious of your artistic knowledge, and the warmth with which you write of Joan Eardley - a lady I've never heard of before. The artists I most respect are those who record what the camera could never see and, with due respect to your carefully enhanced photos, that is what JE has done. How tragic that she died so young.

    Serpentine-like rocks in Scotland? Now there's a nice Cornish connexion.

  4. Yes, a fascinating place. I too had problems getting my photos to do it justice. A lovely wild place......wish I could have stayed longer...

  5. You might enjoy this review of her show?


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